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August 30, 2013

Ellspermann’s Listen, Learn Tour meets with Vigo officials

TERRE HAUTE — Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann met Tuesday with elected officials in Terre Haute City Hall as part of a continuing “Listen and Learn Tour.”

Ellspermann sought feedback on strengths, weaknesses and issues of the city and county, as well as issues officials can’t control, such as federal mandates. Officials pointed to issues such as a continued drug problem from methamphetamine, state property tax caps and even a concern of work attitudes and the inability of township officials to request drug tests and addiction programs.

Rick Long, Lost Creek Township trustee, voiced concern over work and employment attitudes and how that relates to township disbursement of public assistance, such as paying an electric bill.

“I have people coming to my office expecting a hand out from the government, but yet they are not willing to look for a job until their unemployment runs out,” Long said. “We have made that too easy for a person to stay at home and collect money from the government and not have the attitude to go out and look for a job because they make more sitting at home.”

Long suggested township trustees be given the authority to request a drug screen, as well as  require a person to undergo a drug addiction program prior to receiving public assistance. Long said the problem is funding, as townships cannot afford to pay for drug screens and addiction programs.

Ellspermann said public assistance is meant to be a “spring board not a sofa.”

Mayor Duke Bennett said property tax caps have reduced the city’s income by $35 million since they were instituted in 2010. That’s about 25 percent of the city’s previous income, the mayor said.

“The concept of the caps was fine, I supported that. But what has happened, it has really put a strangle hold on communities,” Bennett said. “Some communities are doing OK because they have growth. In our case, our assessed value dropped 7.5 percent last year.”

The mayor said he does not think the city’s assessed value dropped that much.

“We don’t have the ability to change that,” he said. “It has put us in a position that we will have to find a way to fund in order to make us economically feasible for people to come here,”

The city has to maintain public safety as well as streets and transportation and city services to remain economically viable, the mayor said. “Otherwise we will lose our economic development edge, which means we will not be able to sell Terre Haute. That is a real dilemma,” the mayor said.

Vigo County is one of four counties — which also includes LaPorte, Vanderburgh and Sullivan — that has not moved past the first step for a sales ratio study, recommended to be completed in May, for reassessment used to determine tax rates. Because of that, Bennett said “it will probably be next February or March when we will find out what our revenues will be, but we will already be two or three months into the year. That is just not acceptable.”

Bennett said he thinks the state must enact punitive measures to ensure the reassessment/tax rate process is not delayed.

Vigo County Assessor Debbie Lewis was out of her office Thursday on a state training session and could not be reached for comment. In addition, Bennett said he is now also concerned the state legislature is looking to remove other funding sources for cities such as cable franchise fees and personal property tax income.

Jackie Lower, a member of the Vigo County School Corp., said vouchers have reduced some funding to public schools, adding she thinks the state should have taken a more segmented approach to school vouchers.

State Rep. Bob Heaton, R-Terre Haute, responded, saying that while “West Central Indiana has done a great job” in education, “other parts of the state have not. Don’t tell me that vouchers are a terrible thing, because they are not,” adding he thinks the vouchers primarily help lower income youths at inner city schools get to a better school.

The meeting in City Hall was the 44th county in which Ellspermann has conducted a Listen and Learn Tour stop. She plans to visit all 92 Indiana counties and present a report in November or December available to the Indiana General Assembly.

“The issues here are very similar [to other counties]. The drug problem we are hearing and the property tax cap challenges of communities, we are absolutely hearing,” Ellspermann said. “The workforce is probably the third that we hear commonly, but the nuisance here is the attitude of folks not wanting to go to work or feel that is their next best step.

“I am always listening to how do we as a state help our communities work with that challenge of workforce,” she said.

Ellspermann said this was her first session where it was suggested township trustees be granted the ability to request a drug test and drug addiction programs from people prior to disbursement of public assistance.

“In every county, there will be a couple of things like that [not previously suggested]. Even after doing 43 of these, that are ideas that we want to hear,” Ellspermann said. “This is a forum to be able to raise those possibilities and see which ideas will get legs under them as other people look at them. It is exactly what the governor and I want to here. What are the things we can do as a state to be that stronger partner, because as our communities succeed, we as a state succeed.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

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